NEC Meeting, 21 May 2013

This was one of the shortest meetings on record, at just three hours. Iain McNicol, Harriet Harman, Tom Watson and Ed Miliband thanked all who worked in the May elections. Labour gained nearly 300 councillors, retaking control in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, coming close in Lancashire, Staffordshire and Northumberland, winning the mayoral contests in Doncaster and Tyneside and electing Emma Lewell-Buck as the new MP for South Shields. Labour is now within 0.6% of being the largest group in the local government association, and next year NEC member David Sparks should be leader not only of the Labour group but of the LGA itself. Power-sharing arrangements have been approved in Anglesey, Lancashire, Northumberland and Cumbria, and in Bristol, where Labour has accepted places in the independent mayor’s cabinet on condition that he will allow votes in cabinet.

In Oxfordshire Laura Price won Witney by 10 votes and, together with a clean sweep in Banbury, deprived the Conservatives of their overall majority. Though these were satisfying headlines, UKIP helped to split the right-wing vote, and there was discussion over whether they were still a repository for anti-political protest, benefiting from media fascination, or a more coherent underlying force.

Ed Miliband argued that we must take them on. We should celebrate diversity, but make it work for everyone. Immigration is a class issue: cheap Polish plumbers are great for people renovating their homes, but not for British plumbers trying to earn a living. Employment conditions and wages must be safeguarded. UKIP support was a symptom of the economic crisis, and Labour had to show how to change people’s lives for the better. Community politics was fundamental.

Policy on a referendum is unchanged: instead of creating years of instability by setting an arbitrary date, a Labour government will consult the British people if and when there is a transfer of powers. Harriet Harman said this was not a way of stopping voters giving the wrong answer: on the contrary, we could not yet sensibly frame the question. However she wondered if the referendum was becoming a doorstep issue, alongside jobs, homes and living costs, and welcomed views on this.

Looking Forward

Labour did well in the battleground areas, particularly where parliamentary candidates led the campaign. Most remaining targets should select soon, and half of all other seats by the end of 2013. Southampton Itchen and Gower will choose from all-women shortlists, significant because these are Labour seats, as will Falkirk after issues around membership have been resolved. In January the organisation committee lengthened selections to 13 weeks, and I argued that this disadvantaged people with normal jobs and lives. In May the committee accepted this, and shortened the process to 7-8 weeks. However there are still too few women candidates for open selections to produce gender-balanced shortlists. According to Labour Women’s Network, women have to be asked seven times on average before they will consider standing, while men only need asking once, if at all.

Next year sees more council elections, including London, and the European election. David Sparks again worried about holding them on the same day, saying that not a single Labour councillor thinks it is a good idea. I believed Labour had already supported combining them, and repeated my alarm at the possibility that not only the south-west but other regions as well could end up with no Labour MEPs if they were separated. With Glenis Willmott unable to attend and Michael Cashman having retired, I seem to be the only member worried about this. However Harriet Harman reassured us that she was working with Glenis, Iain and Ed Miliband as a team, and Tom Watson outlined work to boost turnout in core areas. Hopefully Glenis will give a personal dimension to Labour’s campaign. And a snippet of ammunition: UKIP MEPs voted against removing asbestos from public buildings, claiming that white asbestos is “harmless”.

The ballots to rank Labour’s European candidates within each region are now open. There have been concerns about people being included or excluded by regional panels, and the process will be reviewed before the next round. I’d be interested in whether members would like a stage where constituencies can nominate candidates. The other issue is cost: a single mailshot to every member may mean £5,000 in postage alone, hard to manage without personal wealth or union backing.

The Politics of Organisation

Arnie Graf, former adviser to Barack Obama and now working with Labour will attend the next NEC meeting to talk about community organising. In addition Blue State Digital will give a presentation on online operations, including social media, fundraising, and a more attack-oriented policy approach.

Labour is also buying NationBuilder, which will be linked with membersnet and provide local parties with a website and volunteer management tools. The initial plan was to charge constituencies £240 each, and assumed that at least 300 would take it up. Some of us were uneasy: it is less than two years since Refounding Labour centralised most subscription money in exchange for scrapping fixed charges. The latest proposal is for constituencies with fewer than 200 members – around one-third – to pay only £100, but that means asking the rest for more. However 150 CLPs currently pay £400 for an ageing and inferior product, and some lay out £1,000 just for a website, so maybe it’s not a problem.

Iain McNicol was cautiously optimistic on finances. Media claims that Labour is bankrolled by the unions do not give a true picture, because they only look at donations large enough to be reported to the electoral commission. In fact 28% of party income is from membership subscriptions and small donations, 30% from commercial and fund-raising activities, 18% from grants and 23% from affiliated unions. He was pleased that hundreds of people had applied for 16 trainee organiser positions, and drew attention to the latest round of the Future Candidates Programme, with a deadline of 15 July.

The Politics of Ideas

Ed Miliband responded to a range of concerns, including Tory cutbacks to health and safety, whether Labour would borrow more to build homes, further pleas to repeal the bedroom tax, the need for a positive European agenda based on fairness and jobs, defending employment rights and promoting the living wage. He was praised for assisting the gay marriage bill, and asked about the pay review body recommendations that MPs should get a pay rise of between £10,000 and £20,000, compared with 15% real-terms cuts for other public servants. This last is a decision for the parliamentary party, which prompted Ken Livingstone to recall the previous such vote when he joined Tony Blair, Dennis Skinner and Peter Mandelson in the No lobby, outnumbered ten to one by their Labour colleagues.

I asked about press reports that Labour supports a cap on welfare payments, either a total limit or at an individual level, and others gave examples of people battered by the system. A man who has worked for 33 years lost his job, aged 48, and cannot claim benefit after a year because his partner works four days a week for the minimum wage, on which they will have to raise their son. A disabled man with a two-bedroom adapted bungalow has his living allowance included in his income and is told that having a car is a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. They can hang on, but only if Labour offers hope.

Ed Miliband said that Labour’s economic policies must be credible or we would end up having to renege on our promises like Nick Clegg. Tax credits should make work pay, but he would never follow David Cameron in dividing society into private against public or strivers against shirkers: it was not his kind of politics, and anyway it wouldn’t work. He valued our volunteers, and said Cameron’s associate showed total disrespect in allegedly describing local Tories as “swivel-eyed loons”.  He repeated his belief that Labour would be in a better place now if the leadership had listened to members before.

He said that policy development should be accelerated, and Labour would set out clear alternatives on the forthcoming spending review. Angela Eagle gave an update on the next national policy forum on 22/23 June, and encouraged members to contribute through the Your Britain website. The forum will hopefully promote integration with the shadow cabinet review. She warned again about cynics looking for the next betrayal, though in fact we’re just looking for policy supremo Jon Cruddas, who was not at the NEC nor the joint policy committee. However the policy review papers should be on the Your Britain site under Policy Review. Those interested can also sign up to the One Nation register by mailing onenationregister@gmail.com. This circulates articles and news of seminars in London: topics include “One Nation football”, and “policy-making in government and opposition” with Tory, LibDem and Labour insiders. They are open to party members as well as academics, business and the public.

Finally elections for the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) executive committee and their representatives on the NEC and the national policy forum are under way, with nominations closing on 17 June and the ballot between 21 June and 17 July 2013. The Young Labour regional elections had doubled participation through online voting, with turnout ranging from 6.75% to 11.93%. The complaint procedures working group is looking at training for regional staff, a possible shorter process and less draconian sanctions for “low-level” complaints, and greater clarity for members. And the Labour Animal Welfare Society and the Labour Women’s Network were accepted as new affiliates to the party.